Bell talks guitars, friendship, and desert dreamscapes ahead of his debut EP ‘A Rough Draft’
At Majestic Journal, our ‘Fresh Sounds’ feature aims to showcase not just the latest tracks from our favourite up-and-coming artists, but the paths taken to get there. In the midst of a new ‘soundcloud generation’, emerging social media streamers and independent bedroom producers, we sat down and talked career-defining collabs, friendships and electric soul with American guitarist Julian Bell.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Julian Bell’s rise in music, personifies patience; his latest single and video ‘Red Love’ boasting Bell’s resonant soul vocal and bluesy guitar licks in the desolate Arizonian desert. Following on from his humble beginnings as an independent artist, Bell is a music performance graduate who in 2012, during arts college, crowdfunded $3,660 (in one month) towards his first project in music.
Over the past 6 years, his unassuming pipe dream has become a platform for a string of collaborative projects with Irish rapper Rejjie Snow [featuring on Snow’s breakthrough album the ‘The Moon & You’ (2017)] and with Chicago-based creative Stefan Ponce [the producer behind Childish Gambino’s Grammy-nominated single ‘3005’ (2013)]: working together on Ponce’s new EP ‘The Boy who fell from Earth’(2018).
With Bell gaining momentum, building on the punchy soul single ‘one and only’ (2017), ‘Red Love’ (2018) brings his solo career into focus by exploring dreamscapes and the fragility of love with a sound reminiscent of old school Hendrix and Prince. We caught up with Bell to chat about his early steps as an unsigned solo artist in Chicago’s music scene ahead of the release of his first solo EP ‘A Rough Draft’ later this year.
Julian Bell - Red Love (Official Video)
To me, ‘Red Love’ is an ode to rock n roll-soul: an electric vocal and production so slick and mature for an artist in the early stages of their career—what is the inspiration behind the single and what lyric resonates most with you?
Around the time I wrote ‘Red Love’ I was studying a lot of psychedelic lyrics and songs from artists like Jimi Hendrix & Prince. I just loved their use of color: its association with an emotion or a thought. My favorite lyric from ‘Red Love’ is “the joy you seek is right beneath, the problems you love to keep” - I think this line probably applies to a lot of people; we’ve all got our problems…
Tell us about the visuals behind the video for ‘Red Love’. Working with director Ricky Staffieri (one of the masters behind the camera of ‘Better Call Saul’), what themes did you want to explore?
Ricky is one of my homies that I’ve known since college, both moving to LA at the same time. He reached out to me asking if I had any songs that I would want to shoot a video for. I sent him ‘Red Love’ which, at the time, I wasn’t planning on releasing as a single - let alone the first! He was hyped, wrote a draft, and two weeks later we were in the desert… We wanted to do something that felt otherworldly and dreamy, and decided that Arizona was the best location to get this idea across.
It’s easy to place an artist in a box or genre: how would you describe your sound and how far do you think this kind of labelling influences an artist’s early career and his exposure, especially considering the rise of streaming platforms and algorithms that create ‘genre-based’ playlists and daily mixes?
I’d describe my sound as Electric Soul: a mix of rock, pop, and soul. You can’t ignore how an artist’s race can define their label. Regardless of your sound, it can influence our path and is often out of our control. There is a big difference between being labelled a ‘pop artist’ and being labelled as an ‘R&B artist’, in terms of the sites that will post about you and ultimately, the playlists you end up on… In modern music, If you ‘get on’ one of the big playlists, that can change a lot of things for you!
You went to Arts College in Chicago, your track ‘Red Love’ produced by Chicagoan Stefan Ponce—how did your paths cross and what part did he have in ‘Red Love’s’ final sound?
Stefan and I met 4-5 years ago through a mutual friend. He needed a guitarist for a song he was working on and we clicked! We have been working together ever since. Most of the collab tracks that I’ve featured on have stemmed from Stefan calling me in to add guitar or vocals to his projects. ‘Red Love’ wouldn’t exist without Stefan, he’s always sending me beats and tracks he’s working on and he gave me the confidence to co-produce all of the tracks on my upcoming EP. He sent me a drum and bass track and I instantly knew what to do with it! I think I wrote the whole song in an hour…
Stefan Ponce ft. theMind, Julian Bell, Micah Freeman, & KYLE - "Super Star" | P&P Premiere (Official Video)
Prince, Hendrix, Kravitz, and Wonder are all heroes of yours. Who is the most surprising influence in your music and which hidden talents on your radar should we be listening to?
Hard question! Maybe Pharrell or Miles Davis. I don’t know if they are a surprise but I’ve been a Pharrell fan since his N.E.R.D days. The way Pharrell has seemingly always been able to do everything in his own way is super dope—the ways in which he continues to evolve is amazing! I could say the same thing for Miles, he is always pushing his sound in a new direction.
Though guitar solos have seemed to take a backseat in modern music, why do you think the electric guitar has retained its appeal as a tool of expression? Is it hard to strike a balance between the ‘purity’ of an instrument’s sound with the synthetic sounds characterizing modern music production?
The guitar is one of those instruments that can evoke feeling. Someone ripping a guitar solo can hit your head (and your heart) if it’s done ‘right’! The guitar is slowly coming back into the sonic sphere which is exciting. I think it depends on the song that you’re working on. I usually like to keep my tone more on the “pure” side—but if a song needs a crazy sound then that’s what i’m gonna do!
Working closely with Rejjie Snow on several successful collabs, is there some trepidation ahead of your forthcoming solo project considering your recent success as a collaborator?
A little… but I don’t think it has anything to do with who I’ve worked with. I’ve collaborated with a lot of rappers but I’m not a rapper—maybe that’s why I don’t feel as much pressure. What I do is different, but there are always nerves when releasing new music. There are a thousand things to consider before you release a song but, if anything, it’s probably more excitement than nerves!
PINK FLOWER (feat. Dana Williams & Julian Bell)
What can we expect from ‘A Rough Draft’? Is it an EP, LP, visual album? Tell us more!
It’s going to be an EP of 4-5 songs. The next single is called ‘Pretender' which will be coming out soon alongside a video. The EP is just a snapshot of what I’ve been working on (hence its title ‘Rough Draft’), with most of the creative process and tracks beginning in my studio apartment. Every song has its own identity, with a solid theme running throughout the project... I need to release it soon because I keep adding and taking away songs: I don’t know what’s going to make the final cut!
Guitar or vocals?
I think I would choose guitar—that’s what got me into a lot of rooms and shows in my early days in music—though, I can’t imagine not being able to sing! Is there an option C haha!?
Red Love, Julian Bell’s latest single, is out now.
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Written by Alex Farrow-Hamblen
Edited by Amelie Varzi